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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 68 - Thursday, 23 April 2009
The Green Customs Initiative: Capacity Building for Environmental Security
By Ezra Clark, UNEP DTIE
Full Article

The issue of illegal trade in environmentally-sensitive commodities and capacity-building of customs officers for its prevention is receiving increasing recognition in MEA negotiations and increased attention by many international organisations. Indeed, the World Customs Organisation assigned environmental crime as a priority for 2009 and the theme for International Customs Day on 26 January 2009 was “Customs and the Environment: Protecting our Natural Heritage.”

Ignorance, lack of awareness and the low-priority often assigned to environmental crime by many authorities makes it an attractive area of operation for smugglers, offering a lucrative business with low risks. National and international crime syndicates worldwide earn an estimated US$20-30 billion dollars annually from hazardous waste dumping, smuggling proscribed hazardous materials, and exploiting and trafficking protected natural resources. Illegal international trade in “environmentally-sensitive” commodities such as ozone depleting substances (ODS), toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, endangered species and living modified organisms is an international problem with serious consequences. It can directly threaten human health and the environment; contribute to species loss; result in revenue loss for governments; and undermine the success of international environmental agreements by circumventing agreed rules and procedures. It is also of great concern that environmental crime is often linked with other social crime and illegal activities such as money laundering and organised crime.

Customs and border protection officers constitute the front line of every country’s defence against trans-boundary illegal trade, therefore building the capacity of these officers is vital. Training and awareness-raising are key components of such capacity-building, but can be time-consuming and expensive when delivered separately for the wide range of MEA-related issues customs officers must cover. An effective solution is coordinated training, and this is what the Green Customs Initiative aims to provide.

Green Customs is a cross-cutting initiative that supports a number of UNEP’s priorities, including those on environmental governance, harmful substances and hazardous waste, environmental sustainability, and climate change. The Initiative is a partnership of international organisations cooperating to enhance the capacity of customs and other relevant enforcement personnel to monitor and facilitate the legal trade and to detect and prevent illegal trade in environmentally-sensitive commodities covered by the relevant conventions and multilateral MEAs. This is achieved through awareness-raising on all the relevant international agreements as well as provision of assistance and tools to the enforcement community. Green Customs is designed to complement and enhance existing customs training efforts under the respective agreements.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was the most recent organisation to join the Green Customs Initiative, becoming a Partner in April 2009. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), while not an MEA, is a partner in the initiative and has found this to be a good platform for collaboration and outreach to the customs community. The partnership now comprises the secretariats of the relevant MEAs with trade related components (Basel, Cartagena, CITES, Montreal, Rotterdam and Stockholm) as well as Interpol, OPCW, UNEP, UNODC and the World Customs Organization.

The Green Customs Initiative provides coordinated and cost-effective delivery of training and awareness-raising of customs officers and enforcement personnel that is delivered through an umbrella partnership involving multiple organisations with diverse mandates. Customs administrations need and regularly request coordinated training such as that delivered under the Green Customs Initiative, as such training is not being provided by other means. For some of the MEAs involved, Green Customs is the only structured interaction with the customs community, as funding is often not available for such outreach activities. Without the intervention of the Green Customs Initiative, customs officers in developing countries and countries with economies in transition (CEITs) would have a significantly more piecemeal and inefficient approach to understanding the implications of trade-related MEAs and related organisations.

The initiative is delivered through a variety of means. Many Green Customs training workshops have been held all around the world; these have ranged from regional workshops to sub-regional and national workshops. An objective of the initiative is to incorporate “Green Customs” into the national training curricula of developing countries and CEITs.

A primary tool that has been developed is The Green Customs Guide to Multilateral Environmental Agreements, which was produced by the Green Customs Initiative Secretariat through a collaborative effort of the partners of the Initiative. This guide provides information and guidance to customs and other border control officers to assist in their efforts to combat illegal and facilitate illegal trade. The Guide explains the Green Customs Initiative and provides an overview of the relevant MEAs and trade-related treaties and organisations that are included in this initiative. It includes information on how trade is regulated and describes the responsibilities of Customs officers in implementing the various controls. Specialised terminology is explained and sources of further information and assistance are provided. The Guide can be used as part of a training curriculum for customs officers or as a stand-alone resource, and can be downloaded from:

A number of additional training and information materials have been developed by the partners and the Green Customs Initiative Secretariat, and are updated as appropriate. E-learning training modules are currently being created under a cooperation agreement with the World Customs Organization. These comprehensive “self-learning” tools will be made available to customs officers around the world thorough the WCO training platform.

For customs officers, the Green Customs Initiative should provide increased knowledge of environmental issues, particularly those related to MEAs, enhanced skills required to enforce national environmental commitments, and better recognition of the role of customs officers in environmental protection. From the countryperspective, the Initiative assists in achieving goals to increase detection of smugglers and illegally-traded commodities by national customs officers, facilitate legal trade, strengthen capacity for national compliance and enforcement of MEAs through monitoring of trade, increase opportunities for dialogue with regional trade partner countries on illegal trade issues, sustain capacity-building through integrating Green Customs into national customs training curricula, and prevent loss of revenue from tax and duty avoidance associated with smuggling. Ultimately, a decrease in environmental crime, control of toxic chemicals and waste, and better species protection should contribute to a less polluted and more sustainable environment.

There are positive and supportive references to the Green Customs Initiative in many decisions taken by the parties to the MEAs and by committees and other relevant bodies of the other organisations in the partnership, encouraging Secretariat participation and support for the initiative. For example, Green Customs is recommended as a means for cooperation on chemical conventions by the Ad Hoc Joint Working Group on Enhancing Cooperation and Coordination Among the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. The Basel and Rotterdam conventions have already adopted the recommendations and it is expected that the Stockholm Convention will also do so at its fourth meeting, in Geneva in May 2009. This would make the recommendations operational and UNEP would be invited: “to develop programmatic cooperation that would support the implementation of the three conventions in areas of common concern, such as sustainable development, trade, Customs (such as through the Green Customs initiative), transport, public health, labour, environment, agriculture and industry.”

Cooperation on illegal trade is an excellent opportunity for international organisations and MEA secretariats to work together across different issue areas, as many of the problems and solutions regarding the monitoring of trade in ODS, toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, living modified organisms and endangered species are similar. Green Customs presents a practical means to facilitate such cooperation. It is a small but iconic and significant example of good environmental governance achieved through cooperation, coordination and synchronisation of activities of MEA secretariats and other partner organisations.

More information on the Green Customs Initiative can be found at:
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